"[Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan." (2 Kings 18:4 KJV).
The lesson of Nehushtan is a difficult one to learn. Hezekiah learned it early: we frequently don't.
"Nehushtan" means "brass". Hezekiah showed considerable spiritual insight: he was able to look at something that was being worshiped---something explicitly given of God through Moses to Israel---and see that it was just "brass".
The Lesson of Nehushtan is this: it may be given of God, it may have been God's provision for a time, it may have been a tool through which God acted miraculously; but it's not God. It's not to be worshiped. It's just brass. The Lesson of Nehushtan is a difficult lesson, because it reveals our hearts in a painful way: it shows how quick we are to raise up an idol; and sometimes we make idols of very good things.
The children of Israel made an idol of the brass serpent God had commanded Moses to make. A painful lesson to learn is, idolatry comes naturally to the flesh. We all have the flesh in us, and idolatry is bound up in that: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are [these]; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told [you] in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." (Gal. 5:19--21 KJV) The tendency for us to raise up idols is no less than it was in the Old Testament: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."(1 John 5:21 KJV). And, just like in the Old Testament, we have a tendency to raise up idols thinking they are part of Scriptural worship of God. Remember Aaron at the bottom of Sinai? "And when Aaron saw [it], he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow [is] a feast to the LORD." (Ex. 32:5 KJV). Aaron established the worship of the golden calf at Sinai, then told the people they were celebrating a "feast to the LORD". This is the pattern of idolatry in the Old Testament: it is repeatedly mingled with worship of the Living God.
The subtlety of it is the danger: we think we are worshiping the Lord, when we have actually set up an idol. With this in mind, the lesson of Nehushtan becomes even more painful: we tend to set up idols and confuse them with worship of the Lord, and we tend to make idols of good things the Lord has given us.
Of course I bring this up because of its relevance to us in "assembly circles" today. In particular, I think we have been especially plagued by various Nehushtans over the years; most of which are men that have been elevated to heroes and eventually idols. Take, an example, any one of many authors on my bookcase. I have a raft of books on my bookcase whose authors have been raised to the status of idol in "assembly circles": JND, WK, FWG, SR, JBS, FER, CAC, etc. Some of these men are almost seen as infallible in some "assembly circles." In fact, some are almost blatantly worshiped as modern-day prophets, successors to John the Baptist, Paul, or Christ Himself.
It takes a good deal of courage to say with Hezekiah: "they are Nehushtan!" They're brass, just men. True, they were men who brought some insight, and were used of God; but they're just men for all that.
I was speaking in assembly a month or two ago, and mentioned that I had made an idol of a man dead more than 100 years. People seemed interested until I mentioned his name was J. N. Darby. Suddenly, people were almost angry. After the meeting, one of the older men said to me: "If you're going to set up an idol, I suppose Darby is a good choice." The casual acceptance of what is frankly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments was shocking! But, I have come to believe it's systemic. This is the normal behavior of people in "assembly circles" these days.
Frankly, the hero-worship in "assembly circles" is a much bigger problem than most seem to realize. For all our talk of "clerisy", we've escalated it to a level unknown in a lot of mainstream evangelical churches. While the Baptist church up the street has a "pastor", we have men that are elevated in our minds to infallible. What's worse? a church that establishes a clergyman, thinking that to be the Biblical model; or an "assembly" eschewing "clerisy" in their doctrine, but esteeming some men above reproach in practice?
But idols can be other things too. Take another example: a meeting format. Personally, I would prefer to keep a very "traditional" format: remembrance meeting, Bible reading, "open" ministry. I like traditional "assembly" meetings. I like the spontaneity and freedom of them. But we have to be oh-so-careful that we're not worshiping them. We have the be careful to realize that we don't curry favour with God by having our meetings in a certain format.
Perhaps the worst form of idolatry is the one where people worship the God they think is there, who is not the living God of the Bible. We do this in a number of ways---and frankly it's a topic all of its own---but there are two opposite extreme examples of this: the one where God is some sort of sentimental Benefactor who sort of overlooks our sin, the other where God is a cruel, demanding Master who demands the last farthing. The first is typical of the so-called "liberal" Christians: the type who build "seeker-friendly churches". The second is more typical in so-called "conservative Christians", and often the type who flock to "exclusive assemblies". The truth is, God is "of purer eyes than to behold iniquity", but He is also "Him that justifies the ungodly". Both of these errors overlook the work that Christ has done: the "liberal" view makes Christ's work unnecessary, the "conservative" view makes it insufficient.
So let's keep ourselves from idols. It takes a lot of courage to look at an idol---especially one that was made of a bona fide blessing from God---and call it brass; but that's precisely what we are to do. We are to not allow other things to take His place in either our worship or our hearts.